Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64
Length: c. 30 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings, and solo violin
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 2, 1920, with Sylvain Noack, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
Those brilliant youthful works by Mendelssohn have often spawned the suggestion that his creative powers dwindled in later life. (Although by dying at 38, he never really had a later life.) The much loved Violin Concerto loudly refutes any such notion, for it holds its own with the great violin concertos of Beethoven and Brahms, and sings with freshness and gorgeous melody. It was first conceived in 1838, but not finished until 1844, to be premiered the following year by Mendelssohn’s close friend, the Leipzig concertmaster Ferdinand David. Having worked closely with the composer on the solo part, David was chosen as the fitting dedicatee.
There are many moments in the Concerto when Mendelssohn rises far above the ordinary. The drum taps of the opening, with the soloist unconventionally making an immediate entry, the second subject, scored for clarinets above flutes above the soloist’s open G string; the cadenza’s miraculous transformation into recapitulation; the impulsive soaring coda – these lend the first movement some of its fine distinction.
The second movement is linked to the first by a held bassoon note, partly because Mendelssohn hated gaps between movements and wanted always to bring them closer together, partly to cloak the use of the same opening formula as in the first movement: two bars of introduction to a soaring melody, in this case a tune of incredible sweetness.
At the end of the slow movement, the music again runs on, not directly to the finale but first to a remarkable passage of quasi-speech where the soloist tells us, like a waiter with impeccable manners, that the slow movement is done and that we must prepare for the finale, a soufflé of feathery lightness. Once it starts, this brilliant confection offers magical dialog between the soloist and the winds, and, in the middle, a curious passage where strings and horn carve out a broad countermelody. Right to the end, the soloist ranges over the instrument in dazzling, delicious display. — Hugh Macdonald